Geo-engineering and Our Uncertain Future

Volcanic Eruption at Fimmvörðuháls (Eyjafjallajökull, Glacier). Source: Helga, Flickr Creative Commons.
Volcanic Eruption at Fimmvörðuháls (Eyjafjallajökull, Glacier). Source: Helga, Flickr Creative Commons.

It is probable that, in an attempt to counteract the effects of global warming, humanity will deliberately engage in a large-scale manipulation of environmental processes that affect the Earth’s climate. This could well be one of the most consequential events in human history. We can predict with reasonable confidence that some “geo-engineering” scheme to extensively modify environment systems or control climate will be implemented in the coming decades. There are two main reasons for this.

Meaningful action on the climate front, entailing massive and rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to get at the root cause of climate change, might be beyond the abilities of the current international system of nation-states. In 2013, atmospheric CO2 concentrations surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in recorded history. In the twenty years leading up to 2009, the mean growth rate for atmospheric CO2 was about 1.5 ppm. At this rate, humanity will cross the 450 ppm threshold within 30 years or so. Working with paeleoclimate data that puts climate sensitivity to doubled atmospheric CO2 at about 3°C when slow feedback processes – such as melting glaciers – are excluded, James Hansen et al made the following conclusion: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed… carbon dioxide will need to be reduced from the current 385 parts per million to at most 350 parts per million.”

The coming decades will bring significant disruptions with or without successful mitigation efforts. Many effects have already been “locked in” for the future. For example, contributors to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report estimate that, even if atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations had been held at their 2000 levels, we would still experience an increase in global average temperatures of about 0.6 °C by 2100. According to work by Dim Coumou and Alexander Robinson, if all emissions had been halted in 2015, the global land area experiencing extreme summer heat would still have quadrupled by 2040. Global sea-level rise has doubled in pace over the last twenty years, and is increasing at an average annual rate of 3.2 mm/year. Even if aggressive action was taken today to curb emissions, sea levels would still rise by about 1 foot by 2100. Many mitigation efforts, including schemes to capture and sequester carbon, would see a considerable lag before significant effects could be seen in falling temperatures. In the meantime, global average temperatures and sea levels will have risen enough to disrupt patterns of food production. Although warming may improve agricultural yields in the northern hemisphere in the short term, yields in other, developing regions will face growing disruption. Variable weather and drought will pose greater risks to harvests, threatening supply as one in nine people in the world already suffer from chronic undernourishment. The refugee crises that have caused such dismay in the second decade of this century are harbingers of far more wrenching ordeals to come.

Source: Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Flickr Creative Commons

Societies in the grip of an ecological crisis will thus be left with two options: do nothing, or attempt to directly manipulate the Earth system. Given the aforementioned political inertia, and given that some effects of global warming have effectively been “locked in” for the coming decades, agents might turn to geo-engineering out of sheer desperation. Some 634 million people were living in low-elevation areas at risk from rising sea levels in 2007. Disruption to food supplies will affect millions more. If desperation and disaffection with official paralysis are not motives enough, cost-effectiveness might be. The technology and resources required to engage in crude forms of geo-engineering will be accessible even to the poorest countries, whose already-suffering populations stand to suffer yet more in the coming decades.

Narrowly defined “successful” geo-engineering implies the ability of schemes to artificially generate and maintain conditions approximating those prevalent during the Holocene, the interglacial period that began after the last Ice Age and saw the emergence and growth of human civilization. One geo-engineering scheme that has been explored frequently in literature involves increasing the reflectivity of marine stratocumulus clouds, thereby reducing the amount of solar energy that is absorbed. Scientists at Britain’s Royal Society have suggested this could be made feasible by a fleet of mobile spray vessels to release sub-micron drops of seawater into the marine boundary layer. They put the cost at just $200 million dollars/year/watt/square meter. $200 million represents less than 1% of the Pentagon’s budget.

Another widely expounded scheme involves creating a cloud of particles in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the Earth. This approach would essentially be a large-scale simulation of volcanic eruptions. In June 1991, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines released 10 teragrams (1012 grams) of sulphur into the tropical stratosphere, initially in the form of sulphur dioxide (SO2). In the year following the eruption, enhanced reflection of solar radiation to space resulted in a cooling of average surface temperatures by 0.5°C. According to Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, “[t]o compensate for a doubling of CO2, which causes a greenhouse warming of 4 W/m2, the required continuous stratospheric sulphate loading would be a sizeable 5.3 [teragrams of sulphur].” The Panel on Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming estimates that if S2 is carried into the stratosphere on balloons or by artillery guns to produce So2, “adding stratospheric aerosol dust to the stratosphere would cost just pennies per ton of CO2 mitigated.” Physicist Edward Teller, known colloquially as “the father of the hydrogen bomb”, predicted that “the sunlight scattering needed to offset the warming effect of rising greenhouse gas concentration by the year 2100 would cost just $1 billion per year.” “By means of [geo-engineering],” writes economist Scott Barett, “a single country, acting alone, can offset its emissions – and those of every other country. By contrast, mitigating climate change by reducing emissions requires unprecedented international cooperation and very substantial costs.”

Whereas the expected benefits of successful geo-engineering might be diffused across the entire species, the costs could be highly concentrated. This might deter obstruction by other actors, or perhaps even encourage collaboration. Moreover, the increasing accuracy of scientific climate models will lead prospective geo-engineers to expect a high probability of success and to concentrate efforts on those climactic systems that have been most accurately modelled. Since the IPCC released its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, improvements in climate models have been evident in “simulations of continental-scale surface temperature, large-scale precipitation, the monsoon, Arctic sea ice, ocean heat content, some extreme events, the carbon cycle, atmospheric chemistry and aerosols, the effects of stratospheric ozone and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.”

Whether geo-engineering succeeds or fails will depend to a large extent on the state humanity is in as it crosses the threshold to take direct control of large-scale environment systems. Societies will have to grapple with not only the consequences of climate change, but also unprecedented economic transformations driven by information technology. In 2013, scholars at the Oxford Martin School estimated that approximately 47% of the US workforce was employed in jobs deemed highly susceptible to automation within the next twenty years. As improvements to machine intelligence proceed apace, the jobs at risk from automation will come to include well-paying, “cognitively demanding” occupations previously earmarked for college graduates. And because robots do not consume, increasing automation and deepening inequality may well unwind the symbiosis between rising incomes and broad-based consumer demand, a central pillar of global capitalism. Such disruptions come at a time when populations in the major economies continue to age rapidly, producing age pyramids that are heavier at the top than at any time in human history. Major debt crises and intergenerational battles loom.

Even if it is not probable that civilization will take advantage of the window offered by successful geo-engineering, it remains possible that humanity will be able to leverage advancing technology to find durable solutions to the dual crisis. Some have seen in the tendency for information technology to drive marginal costs of production to zero the portents of a new, “postcapitalist” mode of production. This will be a system in which the socially necessary labour time required to produce goods and services will have fallen to zero, resulting in a “society based on mental labour, sustainability and networked thought.” For journalist Paul Mason, attempts to create a non-market economy and a low-carbon system are clearly interdependent. He predicts that states will have to de-globalize finance, nationalize hydrocarbon producers, and take measures to increase inflation in order to finance a universal basic income, while establishing renewables as the primary energy source, and driving down the value of the debts they have accumulated in recent decades.

An artificial Holocene might just facilitate such a transition, some contours of which are visible even today. Although just 7% of the world’s energy came from renewables in 2015, investments and subsidies continue to grow, while Low Energy Nuclear Reaction is getting increasing attention as a safe, potentially scalable and cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels. A 2007 report by the Austrian Institute of Ecology found that “the major obstacles on the way to nuclear fusion are no longer related to principle scientific questions but rather to questions of design and suitable technical solutions.” Potentially major breakthroughs have been made in other fields. “Solidia” cement, developed by Dr. Richard Riman, incorporates much less limestone, thereby emitting substantially less CO2. In 2015, Ogin Energy deployed the most efficient and cost-effective wind turbine yet. A new polymer electrolyte invented by Michael Zimmerman might speed up the arrival of next-generation lithium-ion batteries, accelerating the electrification of emissions-heavy transport infrastructures.

A cleaner, more equitable future is clearly possible. Yet its likelihood appears to be conditional on humanity’s capacity to engineer an artificial Holocene in the meantime. And while it is very likely that attempts at geo-engineering will be made, and that they will possibly succeed to an extent, it is very unclear whether geo-engineers would be able to maintain any initial successes. Although experiments and studies have led to a better understanding of the uncertainties and non-linear characteristics that pervade the climate system, “confidence in the representation of processes involving clouds and aerosols remains low.”  Yet these are precisely the processes that most feasible geo-engineering schemes would seek to manipulate. Moreover, the volcanic processes some geo-engineers seek to replicate may entail a whole range of side effects that need to be addressed.

Like the economy, the ecology is a complex system of positive and negative feedback effects, with many yet unknown variables. Little-understood factors can exacerbate or mitigate certain changes. If humans have proven unable to plan a system as complex as the economy, what is the likelihood that we will be able to regulate a potentially even more complex Earth system? Just as banks have taken advantage of government bailouts to continue trading in risky derivatives, civilization may take advantage of an artificial Holocene to continue developing in a carbon-intensive direction. Should atmospheric carbon concentrations continue to grow unchecked once global average temperatures have been held down artificially, ocean acidification will completely denude the Earth of its largest carbon sink. If a geo-engineering scheme were to fail abruptly, the rise in temperatures that had been forestalled until then could occur very rapidly, with devastating consequences.

Besides the complications and uncertainties inherent in geo-engineering schemes, it is quite conceivable that geo-engineering will spark a major conflict between respective winners and losers from the scheme. International tensions might reach a perpetual boiling point. The success of any geo-engineering system will depend to a large degree on the absence of global war before or during its operation. Civilization faced risks for a global nuclear war multiple times during the Cold War, and there is no guarantee that our luck will continue to hold. Similarly, geo-engineering infrastructure could potentially provide a target for millenarian terrorist groups.

Source: Kevin Lightner, Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Kevin Lightner, Flickr Creative Commons

If geo-engineering were to fail in any of the aforementioned ways, the remnants of our civilization would stand in silent testament to a grim truth: although the human intellect temporarily accorded the species unprecedented sway over the physical world, that intellect was nought but an elaborate display, akin to the plumage of some exotic bird. Humans would stand exposed, despite the grandeur of their achievements, as organisms whose behaviour was still ruled by base instinct and subconscious urges. In an attempt to placate a deep-rooted god complex, to achieve a final separation between historical and geological time, man could consign himself to the fate faced by 99.9% of all the species that have inhabited the Earth. Biophysicist Jeremy England posits that living structures are little different from other physical structures that move and replicate as a result of entropy. A failed human bid to engineer the climate might reveal that we were only ever special at using up inordinate amounts of energy.